STEM in the Kitchen and Garden

by | Jul 27, 2020

STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) is everywhere, not only in the sense of education and career opportunities but in everyday life.  Can you resist the smell of freshly baked cookies: the caramelization of sugars and proteins? In chemistry, that process is called the Maillard reaction. Have you looked at the face of a sunflower, head of cauliflower, or eyes of a pineapple?  There is a hypnotizing pattern:  0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and so on.  The sequence of numbers, where the next term of the sequence is found by adding the previous two terms, is called the Fibonacci sequence.  How do I apply my STEM background (BS in biological sciences) in my life?  Two of my hobbies are baking and gardening.  Both of these activities allow me to enjoy and implement the scientific method.

I love a good chocolate chip cookie: crispy edges, soft and chewy center with molten chocolate chips and buttery crumb. But there are multiple camps of chocolate chip cookie lovers: Camp Thin and Crisp Chocolate Chip Cookies, Team Soft and Thick Chocolate Chip Cookies, Raw Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Squad, and more.  Can you take one chocolate chip cookie recipe from the Internet and just change the baking times to get different results?  The short answer is no.  Baking is thought to be more scientific than cooking.  However, I would say baking isn’t more scientific than cooking, but it may be more precise than cooking.  Striking the perfect ratio of ingredients (stoichiometry anyone?) takes experimentation and practice (understanding how the ingredients chemically behave also helps).  I start by following the recipe, as it is written, and write down my observations. Once the baked, gooey goodness comes out of the oven and cools down, I eat it!  But I also write down more notes.  Is it too sweet? Too salty?  Did it spread too much?  These notes then help me tweak the recipe for my next baking iteration.

There is a certain satisfaction of growing plump, delicious blueberries at home.  I clocked in long hours of tending to them by modifying soil pH and nutrients, adjusting water level, and balancing shade to sun hours.  There were times when I felt overwhelmed by the number of variables, but I fell back on my background in biology and started applying a systematic approach.  At the end of San Diego’s winter, I grow plants from seeds in my garage where I can control light (with a grow light), water levels, soil, and pests.  After a few days, the seeds sprouted their little leaves above the potting soil mix.  A few weeks later, when the seedlings seemed to have sturdy stems and more leaves, I moved them outside to “harden” off.  Mistake. They struggled in the chaotic world outside: some of the seedlings had been eaten; some of their stems broken due to wind; some of them burned in the San Diego sun. I took notes: keep them in their bubble a little longer (or bring them back inside during the night).

Science is like mastering a craft: it takes patience, dedication, and motivation.  It’s okay if your initial results are disappointing, but don’t be disheartened!  Ask questions! What can be done differently? Make observations.  Try again!  Cultivate your analytical skills at Hamilton Education this summer with enlightening instructors and inquisitive peers.